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Can Biomass Burning Really Replace Fossil Fuels?

As state governments and oil majors begin shifting their energy strategies to align with net-zero carbon emissions pledges and the earlier adoption of largescale renewable energy projects, not everyone agrees on what it means to ‘go green’. Turning our backs on coal, oil, and gas means finding an alternative to produce in its place, which is why so many are turning to readily available biomass to bridge the gap. But is this energy source really better than the fossil fuels it’s replacing? 

U.K. biomass company Drax has seen huge revenues, with stocks hitting a seven-year high, since an energy crisis hit Europe due to shortages of oil and gas in a season of high demand, expecting to see profits until 2023. Drax is now producing massive amounts biomass pellets to burn in order to generate electricity, much to the dismay of environmentalists. And the company is planning to invest $3 million to double production by 2030, arguing the electricity produced from burning biomass is carbon neutral. All the while, Drax may be ignoring other harmful gas emissions according to environmental experts.

Will Gardiner, CEO of Drax, suggested in response to criticism about the company’s negative environmental impact that these concerns are unfounded, stating that Drax intends to implement carbon capture and storage technology into its operations to eventually generate ‘carbon negative’ electricity. 

The burning of biomass to produce electricity is not new, with tonnes of wood lining dry woodland ground around the world and fast-growing trees cut down to be collected and stored to use in fuel production. In fact, the global industry was valued at $50 billion in 2020, and is set to continue growing as energy demand increases worldwide.

The argument in favor of this type of biofuel is that fast-growing trees that are cut down to provide biomass pellets can be replanted and will absorb carbon dioxide that is released when it’s burned as they grow. The EU and several state governments have agreed on this idea, accepting it as a green source of energy. With much of the world focusing on net-zero carbon emissions, little attention has been paid to the other harms it might be causing, including the release of various other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. 

As we curb coal and oil production, are we simply moving from bad to worse instead of ramping up renewable energy production at the pace needed to respond to the global energy demand?

Some argue staunchly in favor of biomass energy production, particularly in areas where access to electricity is typically limited. On remote Indonesian islands, Clean Power Indonesia (CPI) is developing its biofuel operations, transforming degraded land into fields of fast-growing bamboo that will help boost energy production in the region. 

The idea is to establish biomass production and conservation forests across several of Indonesia’s small islands, supporting rural livelihoods and developing low-carbon power structures. The scope of this development is immense and could potentially help 40 percent of the 250-million Indonesian population without stable electricity to get access to alternative power sources. Jaya Wahono, Director of CPI, explains “In Indonesia, each island has to develop its own power generation – 9,000 islands means developing 9,000 power plants and 9,000 mini grids.”

Others say the collection of wood for biomass could help to prevent wildfires in areas prone to this devastating phenomenon. California has been experiencing more severe droughts in recent years, leading to annual wildfires, which have been devastating to communities across the state. 

In his argument in favor of developing California’s biomass industry, Congressman John Garamendi stated, “I have long supported a utility-scale subsidy for biomass electricity to incentivize proper forest management and much-needed hazardous fuels reduction in fire-prone states like California. As California and neighboring states face increasingly severe and year-round fire seasons, this will help to reduce the artificially high levels of biomass on our forestlands due to man-made climate change, drought, invasive species like bark beetle outbreaks, and years of mismanagement.”

But is referring to this wood burning technique as ‘carbon-neutral’ problematic at a time when we’re supposed to be switching to green energy? Many remain unconvinced by biomass energy production, worried about the growing trend of wood burning. Not only does the burning of biomass pellets release greenhouse gasses, environmentalists argue, but cutting down forests even with the intention of replanting them could destroy habitats and threaten endangered species

With several state governments and international bodies accepting biomass burning as a green energy source, and companies around the world increasing production to meet the growing energy demand, it is important to question what we mean by ‘green’ in the transition to renewable energy, to ensure we’re not simply replacing fossil fuels with environmentally harmful alternatives. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK. More